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Hark back to the Nanavati case of Love and Murder in 1959 and Trials by Jury

Updated on December 25, 2017

The Nanavati Case

The history of jurisprudence in India cannot be complete without a reference to the famous Nanavati case of 1959. The case at that time created great public interest and a tabloid named Blitz edited by RK Karanjia literally ran it's circulation only on reporting the Nanavati case.

The case was against Kawas Nanavati, a Parsi commander of the Indian navy who was posted on the warship, the cruiser INS Mysore. On return from an oversea voyage he discovered that his English wife Sylvia was sleeping with one of his friends named Prem Ahuja, a Mumbai based businessman. The commander was shocked as he had 2 children from Sylvia. His sense of reason left him and he probably wanted revenge.

He proceeded to the ship and withdrew his service revolver from the ships armoury and then went to meet Ahuja. The meeting from all accounts was a stormy one with Ahuja responding to Nanavati's request that he marry Sylvia, stating that he could not be expected to marry every "bitch", he slept with.a human dead

This incensed the commander who fired 3 shots at Ahuja who died almost instantaneously. He immediately after shooting Abuja went to the local police station and told the officer in charge that he had shot Abuja dead. This evidence went against him later.

The Trial and Demise of the Jury

The trial of Commander Nanavati commenced in the Session Court. A jury was constituted to hear the case. In 1959 the British had left India just 12 years back and trials by jury were the norm in the Bombay Presidency.

The Trial was however greatly influenced by the all around atmosphere where the public was squarely on the side of Nanavati. This was due in great measure to the support of Russi Karanjia the editor of the tabloid Blitz. He also organized public meetings in support of Nanavati. The public opinion considered Nanavati an honest man and it helped that he was a decorated naval officer.

The jury was not unaware of the public sentiments and was perhaps under some duress. The commander also conducted himself impeccably in the trial and won the sympathy of the masses. Everybody felt that Ahuja was a villain and got his just desserts.

The jury at the end of the trial returned a verdict of not guilty. This was not accepted by the judge who declared the findings of the jury as perverse. The case was referred to the Bombay High Court which reheard the case. It awarded Nanavati life in prison. The government however just after ,3 years granted a presidential pardon to Nanavati. A letter from Abuja's sister was taken that she had no objection to Nanavati's release. Subsequently, he migrated to America and nothing was heard about him later.

However, the trial had ramifications. The Supreme Court decided that keeping in view the socio-economic conditions in the country, jury trials were not required in India. Thus the Nanvati case was the last case tried by a jury in India. It became a relic like the British Raj.

Russi Karanjia who fought for Nanavati
Russi Karanjia who fought for Nanavati

Developments

Nanavati trial got hold of the masses fascination and Bollywood produced at least 3 films on the subject. The more famous is Sunil Dutt's ,"Yeh raste hain pyar ke"( these are the roads to love) and now Akshay Kumar's "Rustom". The last named is just released and has stormed the box office. Akshay Kumar turns in a stellar performance as the naval commander. The film skillfully recreates the period of the late fifties in India when British influence was still strong in most walks of life.

The Trial itself is part of Indian legal history and will remain in the statute books. One wonders, why the jury system failed in India when it is still persisted with in America and England. The jury trial is a English gift to India, but this is one gift that died away. No trials by jury now take place in India

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